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Gas Chambers Introduction

Last Update 28 August 2006


A gas chamber is an execution facility whereby a deadly poisonous gas is introduced into a hermetically sealed room. Carbon monoxide (CO) and hydrogen cyanide (HCN) were the typical agents used in the Nazi gas chambers. The carbon monoxide was piped from gas cylinders (euthanasia killing centres: located in separate rooms besides the gas chambers, gas trailer(s): located at the tractor) or produced from vehicle petrol engines *. The hydrogen cyanide was delivered by the Degesch Company under the label "Zyklon B", whiteish-blue crystals in sealed cans, originally used as an insecticide for delousing clothes. "Zyklon B" evaporated immediately upon exposure to the air when poured into a room. It was scientifically established that hydrocyanic acid is 6 times more toxic than chlorine, 34 times more than carbon monoxide, and 750 times more than chloroform. One milligram per kilogram of body weight is sufficient to bring about death.

The first Nazi gas chambers for human beings were introduced as part of the Nazi euthanasia programme, called "Aktion T4", the operation for eliminating physically and mentally handicapped people in Germany and Poland. At that time, the preferred gas was carbon monoxide. In Germany this was provided via gas cylinders, in Poland mainly by the exhaust fumes of motors.
The first Nazi mass killings of non-German subjects utilising gas occured in October 1939 at Fort VII in Poznan, where patients from the mental home in Owinska were murdered in a small gas chamber at Fort VII. This was followed by the use of gas vans and gas trailer(s) at other mental homes in Poland. These killings were committed by the SS-Sonderkommando Lange.
From January 1940, gas chambers were used at six euthanasia killing centres in Germany and Austria (Hartheim) after Viktor Brack, chief of the euthanasia programme, had decided to use carbon monoxide to murder the patients of mental homes in those countries.

Later, after having decided to carry out the "Final Solution of the Jewish Question", the use of gas vans and stationary gas chambers was introduced in the occupied countries of the East, largely in order to avoid the mental problems SS men had encountered while shooting people, mainly Jews. At least 15 gas vans were delivered to the Einsatzgruppen.
After some experiments with the use of "Zyklon B" gas as a killing agent in August 1941, the first mass gassing at Auschwitz occurred on 2/3 September 1941. It took place in the cellar of Block 11 at the Auschwitz Stammlager. A short time later, in early fall 1941, a first gassing in the gas chamber of Crematoria I (also at the Auschwitz Stammlager) was carried out.
In November 1941, the extermination camp at Chelmno was established, where gas vans were used to kill the Jews of Lodz and its surroundings.
In March 1942, stationary gas chambers were introduced at the extermination camp Belzec. After several experiments with gas cylinders and exhaust fumes the SS decided to use a large motor for producing the carbon monoxide gas for three primitive gas chambers. The Belzec gas chambers became the prototype for the larger gas chambers at the Aktion Reinhard extermination camps Sobibor (May 1942) and Treblinka (July 1942). The peak of gas chamber killings was reached at Treblinka, where 10 gas chambers were in simultaneous use. Here 2,500 people could be gassed within one hour. The victims were forced to enter the gas chambers naked and with raised arms so that the room could contain a maximum number of bodies. Babies were thrown on top of the crowd. This method was well-conceived, because the poison gas produced a quicker, deadlier effect if as little air as possible was in a chamber. Therefore the "ultimate" gas chambers were constructed to be as low as possible (about 2 m from floor to ceiling).
To avoid panic, a lot of Nazi gas chambers were camouflaged as bath rooms. Signs were installed, with inscriptions directing the victims toward their final place. In the gas chambers themselves, fake plumbing was added and fake showers installed in the ceilings. Even pieces of soap were handed out sometimes (at Auschwitz and Chelmno), before the victims entered the gas chambers.

Mobile gas chambers [gas vans and gas trailer(s)] as well as stationary gas chambers had to be cleaned after the gassings by Jewish special commands, the Sonderkommandos. These people had to pull out the corpses which were completely entwined, and soiled with blood and excrement. For this purpose larger doors (2 m wide, similar to garage doors) were installed in the outer walls of the Aktion Reinhard gas chambers, while the entrance doors through which the victims entered the gas chambers, usually measured only about 1 m in width. The gas chambers had a slanting floor, sloping downward toward the large outer doors in order to make the cleaning easier and quicker, since the next victims were already waiting.

Most of the gas chambers in the euthanasia killing centres remained intact after the war. All buildings of the Aktion Reinhard camps were dismantled. The Auschwitz-Birkenau gas chambers were blown up by the SS in an attempt to conceal their purpose. Gas chambers are still be seen at some other concentration camps.

* Petrol engines (a statement by Peter Witte (German historian):
Rudolf Reder, the only known survivor of the extermination camp Belzec, carried (according to his own statement made 1944 to the Special Commission for Investigation of German Crimes, first published in Krakow 1946) 4-5 cans of petrol (kanistry benzyny) every day to the motor room of the gas chambers. There the maszyna / motor pedzony benzyna (a motor, run by petrol) was located. His testimony was supported by the Polish electrician Kasimierz Czerniak, who helped to establishing the motor room in 1942; he described a petrol motor of approximately 200 or more PS, from which exhaust fumes were led away over ground pipes (18 Nov 1945). Confusion with a diesel engine is out of the question because diesel fuel is called olej napedowy in Polish.
The theory of a diesel motor in the Belzec gas chambers is based on the testimony of Kurt Gerstein (1945) who had (according to his own statement) not seen the motor but just heard it. Therefore the diesel motor became part (without further references) of the historiography of the death camp.

The case of Sobibor is even more indisputable. In this case even three former Gasmeister (“Gasmasters” / Erich Bauer, Erich Fuchs, and Franz Hödl), who must have really have known the facts, since they all killed with the same motor, confirmed in court that it was definitely a petrol motor. Bauer and Fuchs, having been professional motor mechanics, simply quarrelled during the trial about whether it was a Renault motor or a heavy Russian tank motor (probably a tank motor or a tractor motor) having at least 200 PS. They also disputed whether the method of ignition was a starter or an impact magnet, which diesel motors obviously do not have, being self-igniting (the famous Russian T 34 tank originally had a petrol motor, the diesel version was introduced later, and was rarer).
At all Aktion Reinhard camps diesel engines were used in motor rooms but they were much smaller (testified: 15 PS motors / 220 Volt / 20 Ampere) and were used as generators and for lighting purposes. Perhaps this may have been the source of confusion regarding the real use of the petrol motors.

For the extermination camp Chelmno and the gas vans there the same applies: unquestionably petrol motors.
Walter Burmeister, gas van driver at Chelmno, mentioned mid-heavy Renault lorries with an Otto-Motor. Camp chief Walter Piller described the killing process with “gasses which were produced by petrol motors”. Polish mechanics, who were personally ordered to repair a gas van, precisely described exactly the huge petrol motor and its consumption: “The motor of this car uses 75 litres of petrol per 100 km, that is, twice the consumption of normal motors.”

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